Container shipping

Page 4 – Transforming our ports

Containerisation changed the very look of our ports. In the 1970s the four cellular container ports – Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Port Chalmers – reclaimed large areas of land, filled in old wharves and dry docks, demolished wharf sheds and threw up massive gantry cranes.

Why? Conventional ships loaded cargo gradually from wharf sheds or straight from railway wagons or trucks.  To accommodate as many ships as possible, ports built long finger wharves.

Container ships, however, load so quickly that the cargo must be pre-assembled close to the berth. As each box boat replaced many conventional ships, berth numbers were less important than having large areas of flat land right behind the cranes.

That was simpler to implement at Wellington and Lyttelton, where there were long breastwork wharves – Aotea Quay and Cashin Quay respectively. Even so, Wellington had to fill in some old wharves.

At Port Chalmers, the old wooden wharves – known locally as ‘piers’ – went, along with both dry docks. All to create one (later two) long berths.

The same happened on a smaller scale at the secondary ports. Tauranga later built a five-crane container terminal, but smaller ports strengthened wharves and reclaimed land for container storage areas to handle their box trades.

Safety and later security concerns distanced the wharves from citizens. The old days of Sunday strolls around the wharves or of fishing from them ended as working berths and cargo areas vanished behind security fences. Much public space was lost.

How to cite this page

'Transforming our ports', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-Jun-2016